Review: Living With Shakespeare: St Helen’s Parish, London 1593-1598

History, as I learned at school, even at its very best and most exciting can, if a teacher or writer tries hard enough, become dull and tedious in the extreme. Which is why I picked sciences for A level and dropped history. I loved history as a subject, and had studied the medieval period, Victorian era and both World Wars in my spare time. But I have a dreadful memory for dates, and I was convinced I’d never get a good qualification – let alone a well-paid job.

The history of a parish is not the sort of subject to enthuse. It is an already dry, uninteresting topic. Or so I thought before I picked up this book. This truly magnificent book. I say magnificent because Geoffrey Marsh has produced a wonderful history in this book.

I’ve never read any of Marsh’s previous works, and do not know the man, but if this is anything to go by, I’ll be looking out for other titles by him. He is Director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, so his life has been bound up, I imagine, with studies of Shakespeare’s life. His learning has been put to marvellous effect in this book.

Why is this so good?

First, for me, because he gives a superb feel for the city. He runs through the streets like a man who has walked them in Shakespeare’s time. The book begins with a startling and horrible scene: this is the time of the 1593 outbreak of plague. It is “thirty-five hours before the dawn of St Crispin’s Day. In the heart of London, a young boy lies motionless of a straw mattress. His sunken cheeks, greying face and feeble breath make it clear that he is dying. Alongside him, his brother Abraham, drenched in sweat, tosses and turns, hands clasping and unclasping with spikes of pain. Despite the autumn evening chill the room feels steaming hot, as if the boys’ fevers can heat the fetid air. Across the room, their sister Sara tried to sleep. Upstairs, in the low garret under the roof tiles, two tearful servants girls lie wide awake, holding each other, trembling at the scene they know is just beneath them.”

Baldwin, the boy’s father, is there with Melchior Rate, a local Dutch preacher, as his son dies. Later Baldwin has to take his son’s body downstairs, to be left outside for the gatherers to take away. “Tomorrow Baldwin will lug Melchior’s heavy body down the same stairs, to be followed over the next ten days by his son Abraham, his daughter Sara and one of  the servant girls.” He has already taken his wife’s body and another son out. Soon the second servant girl will also die. Of a household of seven, he alone survives. 

I have not given away much of the book in these quotes and comments – this is all on the very first page – and you should not get the impression that the whole book continues in quite such a devastating manner, but Marsh has a real ability as a writer (and if he ever wants a fresh career, I would suggest historical thrillers would be right up his street), and can thrust the reader straight into the scenes he is painting. 

This is not a story just of plague, though. It is first and foremost a tale of the people who lived in the small parish of St Helen’s. To write about this, he covers London’s life and the people who inhabit the area. However it is also telling about Shakespeare and the period when he lived in the parish, and to do that, Marsh also talks about the theatres of the area, especially Burbage’s Theatre, the problems of building it, the difficulties of financing it, the on-going issues based on the eruption of plague and the consequent loss of income (there are real shades of our recent experiences with Covid shutdowns here), and Burbage’s disputes with the lease-holder and others. 

From there we move to the parish itself, and speculating why Shakespeare might have chosen this area to live in. We are given a quick guide to the area, its history and the various people who would become his neighbours. But St Helen’s was a growing commercial hub. People from all over Europe were arriving and trying to make a living free from the persecution they suffered in France and the Low Countries. We are introduced to doctors, lawyers and musicians before we’re taken to look at bewitchment by way of a specific case. 

After all this, there are a series of Appendices which take us on to more detail about the type of accommodation available, and then on to study individuals in the neighbourhood. 

There are very few writers who can bring the past to life in such an accessible and easily absorbed fashion. Marsh has a light touch as a writer. His prose is direct but never harsh. It is a real joy to read something so detailed, well-researched, fluent and informative. 

Even better, he has discovered a fabulous trove of engravings and watercolours that show the streets as they would have been. He has maps, pictures of the houses, illustrations from contemporary pamphlets and books, and a wealth of other documentary evidence. These break up the text nicely so that it can be left happily on a coffee table to entertain visitors – but the real value lies in the text. 

This is a book I had to read from cover to cover as soon as I received it, and it is a book I will return to many times over the coming years as I continue my Jack Blackjack series. 

I have reviewed many books here on my blog, and many have had the “Highly Recommended” stamp of Jecks approval. I have to admit, though, that this is easily the best non-fiction book I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.

I am enormously grateful to Edinburgåh University Press for sending me a copy to review. 

Living With Shakespeare: St Helen’s Parish, London 1593-1598, published by Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 9781 4744 7972 1

2 Responses to “Review: Living With Shakespeare: St Helen’s Parish, London 1593-1598”
  1. On the strength of your review, I bought a copy from Blackwell’s. It arrived yesterday, and I had a little browse. I shall start it today properl, but already know it was a good decision. Thanks for bri ging if to my attention.


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Michael ;)


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